Research update #8 – Shame and progress

Sometimes posting a research progress update can be like jumping on the scales after a weekend of eating cake – it’s important to do to maintain accountability but you know it’s not going to be pretty. This is one of those times.

As you can tell by my recent posting history, it’s been a while since I read and reflected upon anything. Since my last update however, I have had a PhD progress review where the panel was satisfied with how I’m going and took me off probation and I also attended the ePortforum conference in Sydney, two days of talking and learning about what is being done in Higher Ed. with ePortfolios.

I also read a chapter of a book my supervisor (hi Peter) wrote about teacher attitudes towards education technology which got me thinking much more about methodology than I have been to date. There’s a strangeness to reading (and particularly writing) about one’s supervisor’s writing – a lot of different conflicting feels. Am I obliged/expected to fall into line with his ideas and/or particular areas of interest? (I don’t think so – he’s been remarkably chilled about what I’m doing. Offering thoughts and suggestions, of course but I’ve never felt pressured). Is it ok if I disagree with something that he’s said in his writing? (Again, I think that if I was able to present a solid argument, it would be fine. That said, I’ve not come across anything yet that hasn’t been eye-opening, as you would hope for from a mentor/supervisor). If I read too much of his work, does it get weird or obsequious?

On the one (rational) hand, you approach a supervisor because you think that their interests/methods will inform yours and presumably align (or vice versa) so why wouldn’t you but on the other (emotional) hand, have I had some kind of need to explore the other literature first to come to some of my own conclusions before being shaped too much by his take on things? (In the same way that a filmmaker on a remake might go back to the initial novel but not watch the first film that came from it?). Even Peter said that I didn’t necessarily need to read this particular book as it’s from 2002 and attitudes to ed tech have no doubt shifted since then. He suggested more that I look at who has cited it.

I’m really glad that I did read it though as, as I mentioned, the methodological ideas gave me a lot to think about – largely in getting tutors to describe their grading process as almost as stream of consciousness in real time which was also recorded so that they could watch the recording and add a layer of reflection later. This may well be a common methodology but it’s not one that I’ve come across in the reading that I’ve done to date. I’ll post something about this chapter soon anyway.

I’ve also been working away on an application to upgrade myself from Associate Fellow of the HEA to Senior Fellow. This requires a lot of reflective writing (around 7000+ words) and has been useful in thinking in greater depth about my own professional practices and ‘learning journey’. (I always feel a little bit hippy using that expression but I haven’t come across a better one). So this application has taken up a decent chunk of my time as well.

I have also – because clearly I have a lot of free time on my hands – been slowly nudging forward the formation of a Special Interest Group through HERDSA (but not solely for HERDSA members I think) that is focused on Education Advisors. (a.k.a Education Support Staff – academic developers, ed designers, learning technologists etc). We had a great lunchtime conversation (vent?) about some of the issues that we face which aligned particularly with many of the papers that i have posted about here in the last couple of months. I suspect that one of the trickiest parts will be explaining to teaching academics that this isn’t a group for them. I guess this is one of the things that we’ll need to pin down in the formation of it. It’s far from a new idea – there are a range of city and state based parallels in varying states of activity – but having a national (transnational to include NZ) body isn’t something I’ve seen before. The funny thing is that while this is important to me, some of the issues/ideas that came up in the conversation yesterday, I felt like I have already moved on from in pivoting to research academic staff now and their issues and concerns. But I’m pretty sure I can walk and chew gum at the same time.

STELLAR : A project to gamify academic professional development

stellar logo

One constant in my experience as an education support person over 13 years is that generating excitement about professional development activities relating to teaching and learning can be a challenge. I don’t think this is because teachers aren’t interested in their teaching practice or that they believe that there is nothing more to know (well, in most cases), it’s often just another activity competing for scarce time. Calculations have to be made about the effort vs the reward and often the reward simply isn’t sufficient unless it has been mandated in some way (or offers some kind of formal accreditation – or sandwiches and cake)

Gamification (if you don’t already know) is the practice of using game elements (rules, competition, challenges, winning, points, prizes, badges etc) to motivate behaviour in non-game contexts. It’s been used in commerce for decades (consider frequent flyer programs where you earn points towards rewards and level up to better perks) and it has been explored actively in education for about a decade. (This is separate in some ways to the use of play and games in education, which arguably has been happening for as long as we have had education)

I’ve had an interest in game based learning and gamification for a while now – my previous blog was called Gamerlearner and this is still my “brand” in educational social media. (I switched over to Screenface to be able to focus on wider TELT issues).

I’ve been conscious of the fact that while I’ve been doing pretty good work in supporting TELT in my college, there hasn’t been as much happening in the professional development / academic development space as I would’ve liked. (As a one man team, I’m not going to be too hard on myself about this but it still bugged me).

So a couple of weeks ago, I spoke to our Associate Dean (Education) and launched STELLAR as a pilot. A very very beta-y pilot with a lot of elements really not worked out at all. (This was made clear to participants). The plan is to run the pilot over September and use this experience to design a full scale version to run in Semester 1, 2017. Participants earn points for engaging in a range of professional development activities and the winners get a fancy dinner out.

STELLAR stands for Scholarship of Technology Enhanced Learning, Leadership And Research. To be honest, it’s a slightly clunky backronym designed to work with a stars theme. Because I think people like to be seen as stars, its a nice, easy visual theme and putting stars into teams (which was a goal – even small teams) lets us start talking about constellations. I also like that it means that I get to call myself Starlord in my daily STELLAR emails.

At the half way mark, I’ve got a set of activities in place that academics can use to earn points.
(At some point I want to cluster these to enable collection type activities and rewards. I also plan to map them to Bartle’s player types and a few other things to check that there is a good spread of kinds of activities). These can be found in this Google Doc as well as in a page in the Moodle course that I’m using to house resources, organise groups and track activities.

I’ve been trying to encourage spot activities – e.g. you have 24 hours to upload a scholarly selfie to the Gallery – but so far there hasn’t been much engagement. I’ve been lucky that our central TEL team has been running a “coffee course” over the last week relating to the Flipped Classroom. This involves short learning chunks posted on a blog that take around 10 minutes to complete and include the option to leave a comment. (This idea draws from work by Sarah Thorneycroft at UNE). I’ve been pushing this hard and offering generous points for attending and commenting. I’m happy to say that of the 17 participants in STELLAR, at least six that I know of have signed up and five have been the main posters in the coffee course.

Now that the coffee course is over, I’m mindful of the need to maintain momentum so really have to come up with some further activities to encourage people to engage in. We ran a small (2 people) session on Thursday last week about the new ePortfolio tool that the university has introduced and one of our lecturers that is currently using it was generous enough with her time to share her experiences. Hearing “on the ground” stories from peers makes a huge difference.

In terms of the site itself, I’ve been strongly encouraging team play which requires the use of groups (Constellations) to make the most out of the Moodle functionality. This has been much harder than expected, with most people preferring to play solo. I’ve been asking them to join one person groups and now half of the course is in groups. A major reason for trying to encourage group play (ideally 2-4 max) is to foster greater collaboration and discussion in the schools of the college. I appreciate that academic research can be a very solitary pursuit but teaching doesn’t need to be. For all that I read about Communities of Practice in teaching, the culture in my college just doesn’t seem interested yet – particularly at any kind of scale. (As the old saying goes, our university is 70 schools united by a common parking problem)

I’ve set up a leaderboard which is group based only and also set up visible topics that are only accessible by group members but the hold-outs haven’t budged. (These are also the people that have tended to engage less with the course in these first two weeks – in fairness, this has also been the mid-semester break when a lot of marking is done as well as organising applications for research grants). I’m a little conflicted about what to do with this – I’ve made it clear that if people want to play solo it’s fine but it would help if they were attached to a team. As an admin I can just put them in teams but given that “play is a voluntary activity” (Whitton, 2014, p.113), I’m hesitant to force behaviour. (Which isn’t to say that I’m not using game based strategies – fear of missing out and nagging/feedback – to encourage it)

One lecturer – who generally has been engaging – mentioned to me last week that he wasn’t sure what he is meant to be doing. While I’ve been sending out regular emails, they have perhaps been less succinct than I’d like and more fixated on the set up and mechanics of the game rather than the professional development activities that I’m trying to promote. This is definitely a thing to improve quickly.

I’ve been thinking about the games that I enjoy playing – particularly video games – and there is certainly much more direction given, particularly early on. At the same time, these tend to be much more narratively oriented and I don’t have a story running in STELLAR yet. I toyed with the idea of everyone being astronauts and needing to build their ship by earning points which buy parts etc etc but have serious questions about whether this is going too far off track for people in a college of economics and business.

One thing I would dearly like to achieve is to start building a rich collection of learning resources – including case studies/exemplars of good practice locally and research papers into various topics. Having this created collectively would be a fantastic outcome.

I’ve also been making limited use of the idea of random drops. These are unexpected prizes that a player sporadically wins/gets in video games for no particular reason but the possibility that it might happen is used as a motivator. I got 10 coffee vouchers from our local cafe and have been giving Shooting Star spot prizes when people do something new mostly – first suggestion for an improvement, first addition to the glossary, first person to attend a face to face event etc. This system needs some refinement and will benefit from being less arbitrary. My hope is that by announcing the random drops in the daily emails, it is maintaining interest from the people that haven’t yet won one. Maybe a thing to do will be to highlight that these are being won for being the first to do something.

The scoring system is something of a chore – I’m using the gradebook system in Moodle which has meant creating a separate assessment item for each individual activity that people can participate in. I’m keeping a separate Excel spreadsheet because it’s easier to track (in some ways) and need to manually update both. I’ve asked people to claim points in a discussion forum post but am aware that this is entering an unfun grey area of administrivia. What I really want is for people to be sharing what they’ve done in professional development and sharing their learning with the group and I should find a way to reframe it as such. Or automate it more. I can grade some items that are done in Moodle activities but mostly things have been happening externally that I’m tracking. I’m also fairly conflicted about this tracking – for example, I’ve seen people posting in the coffee course and I’ve been giving them the points that they’ve been earning for this. Many of them haven’t been claiming these points through the forum – at least not after the first day. It’s no secret that I’m also in the coffee course because I’m posting comments there as well but if people are earning points for this kind of activity that I’ve seen them doing, is it a little weird?

Digital badges is something that I’m keen to explore and I’ve created some tied to the random drop prizes but we have massive institutional hurdles with badges and our Moodle instance doesn’t support them yet.

I’ve had several other grand ideas that I simply haven’t had time to implement yet. For the groups/constellations, I’d like to have a star field present that grows as they earn more points/stars. So they begin with just their constellation on a black background but a small star appears when they get 10 points or a new constellation when they complete a cluster of activities. Again, when it is a matter of manual handling, it’s a labour intensive activity.

Anyway, that’s the broad strokes of STELLAR, there are twice as many participants as I was expecting (and this is in a time when many people are away) so I’m quietly pleased with our progress but I’m also well aware that sustaining interest and activity is going to be a challenge when semester resumes on Monday.

More than anything though, it’s nice to finally be walking the walk after talking the talk for such a very long time.

Quick reading: Five papers on Academic Development (Hannon, 2008; Hicks, 2005; Boud & Brew, 2013; Lee & McWilliam, 2008; Bath & Smith, 2004)

Academic development refers to the professional development of academics – which makes sense when you think about it. Evidently I hadn’t thought about that a lot because until I skim read these five papers, I had put academic developers in the same broad (and perhaps vague) category as education designers and learning technologists. People working with teachers/academics to support teaching and learning and developing resources.

These are the papers:

I had just assumed that given that the terminology hasn’t really been settled yet (consider blended/flexible/online/technology-enhanced/e-learning), people have been using the terms that they prefer. (I’ve been toying with Director of Education Innovation as a new title but apparently that will upset the Directors of our schools, so that won’t fly).

Anyway, this was the first of a few realisations that I’ve had in the last week of trying to get my research back on track – ironically enough perhaps while I’ve been in the midst of a major academic development project of my own. (STELLAR – which will get its own post shortly).

Recognising that I need to move on to a new topic of exploration in my holistic overview of the central elements in supporting TELT practices in Higher Ed. but also feeling that I haven’t yet covered Education Support Staff (ESS) adequately, I decided to take the temperature of ESS research via five papers. (I’ve also been concerned that while the deep reading that I’ve been doing has been valuable, I’m spending too long on individual papers and chapters in the process.) I allocated a single 25 min pomodoro period to each of these new papers, including writing notes. Admittedly, four of the five papers I’ve decided that I still need to read in full and may well come back to them in the next topic anyway. (However, I changed my initially planned ‘next topic’ from Universities as Organisations to Teachers as a result of these papers and some other thinking recently, so this still feels like progress)

In a nutshell, as I’ve been looking at research relating to education support staff over the last couple of months, I’ve probably been in my own tribal mindset. I do still believe that there are significant cultural factors at play in higher ed. that mean that knowledge and experience aren’t always appropriately used or recognised if you’re not in the academic tribe and this is an area to work on. There are also an incredibly diverse range of reasons for this, some more understandable than others. I have to admit that I’ve not been as open to the more understandable (and valid) ones as I should’ve and that empathy is always an important part of communication and collaboration.

So after this post on the matter, I’m going to take a first pass at my lit review relating to ESSes and focus on the academic/teacher side. (Ultimately people that teach are teachers and this is the side of the academics’ work that I’m looking at – it’s also a more meaningful term in this context – but I realise that terminology is perhaps more important than I thought.

These are my quick responses to the papers that I skimmed

This is a particularly insightful paper that uses “the discourse analytic method of “interpretative repertoires (Potter & Wetherall, 1987)” (p.15) to consider issues in academic development with a particular focus on education technology and changing teaching practices.

Hannon essentially distills the approaches into ‘enabling’ and ‘guiding’ and interviews 25 individuals working with education technology (including academics and ESSes) about their experiences in one university in this space.

He identifies four main differences in the ways that practice is organised:

  • Developing staff or developing courses (p.19)
  • Implementing or adapting institutional strategy (p.20)
  • Drawing together – systems or community (p.22)
  • Reframing technology or reframing the user (p.23)

Ultimately, Hannon finds that:

it is neither institutional strategy nor learning technologies that impose these constraints, rather the discourse or repertoires associated with their operationalisation (p.27)

I’ll certainly be coming back to this paper in the future.

Hicks looked at issues more in relation to the role of Academic Developers – and people working in Education Support units – as ‘change agents’, caught between the strategic requirements and priorities of the university executive and the needs of teachers and learners.

She felt that the voice of academic developers is seldom heard in research in this field and takes time to address this within a Bourdieuian framework emphasising social systems by inviting developers to participate in a number of focus groups.

Hicks’ paper sits well alongside most of the other papers that I have looked at already, with a focus on the tensions between academic and professional staff as well as academic staff and ‘management’ – with the ESSes torn between the two and underutilised.

This paper may be a useful source of additional supporting quotes and could also be worth reviewing when I get to university as an organisation.

David Boud is a major figure in research into Higher Education in Australia, (Angela Brew presumably is as well but it’s Boud that I’ve heard more about to date), so I was keen to read this one.

The idea of practice theory (Kemmis) is something that I keep coming across (and has also been suggested by my supervisor) and it’s at the heart of this paper. In a nutshell, it’s about framing academic work as practice and considering three key foci

practice development, fostering learning-conducive work and deliberately locating activity within practice. It also suggests that academic development be viewed as a practice (p.208)

Given that my new area of exploration is teachers/teaching/academics, this is a timely examination of academic practice that I will absolutely be delving into in far greater depth. It also offers a nice bridge between these two areas and I think it will also help me to inform my other (professional) work.

This paper presents a solid overview of tribalism in academia and the emergence of Higher Education as a field of study in its own right that needs to be claimed by academic developers. (I’d wonder whether an idea of “academy developers” is more fitting here).

One thing that I’ve come to realise in this sector is that trying to take on organisational cultural issues directly is unproductive, so while I’d prefer tribalism to be replaced with the embrace of a broader notion of being part of a collaborative community of scholars, I realise that it won’t happen any time soon. I guess the real questions are; do the members of a tribe respect the knowledge of another tribe and is teaching and learning in Higher Education something that can be owned by one tribe? Perhaps something more along the lines of tribal elders – strictly in the H.E T&L discipline area, never the ‘academy’ itself – could work?

When it comes to the role of ESS, I note that the authors quote Rowland et al (1998), which has popped up in most of these papers and is high on my list of future reading. It’s a fairly brutal quote however.

[a]t best, they [i.e. academics] view those in these [academic development] units as providing a service to help them teach. At worst, they ignore them as lacking academic credibility and being irrelevant to the real intellectual tasks of academic life. (Rowland, Byron, Furedi, Padfield & Smyth, 1998, p.134) (p.10)

This is certainly another paper to read in full as I explore the idea of academic work and teaching.

This final paper by Lee and McWilliam leans heavily on Foucault and “games of truth and error” and a fairly specific idea of irony. It again explores the tensions that academic developers encounter in the space between executive/management priorities and teacher needs. As someone that hasn’t yet explored Foucault, I imagine it might be of value if this is theoretical direction that I choose but for the most part I just felt that I didn’t get the joke.

Ok, so hopefully this give me a decent starting point for writing something about the literature as it relates to education support staff (obviously there is always more to explore but the best writing is the writing that you’ve actually done and having something to show will make it easier to find the gaps – both in ideas covered in the research as well as in what I’ve been reading and not reading.

Onwards to teachers.

 

Research update #7 New topic, academic development, continuity and change

According to my frequently revised project plan for my thesis proposal, I should now move on to my next topic for exploration, which was initially the University as Organisation but based on recent readings and discussions, it makes more sense to shift across to academics/teachers.

While I still feel that I haven’t read enough – but am assured that this feeling never goes away – I think it’s time to write up what I have found in the literature so far, understanding that this is the first of many drafts. Because I’ve been feeling that I’m not reading enough – or quickly enough – I got five more papers relating to academic development with the intention of skim reading them to identify core ideas and see which ones I should come back to in greater depth. I dedicated a 25 min pomodoro to each paper which generally included note taking.

I think I’ll actually put these into a separate post but my main outcome was that my understanding of the term “academic developer” and academic development seems to differ somewhat from the community. To be honest, I’ve not really given the different terms a lot of thought, assuming that as a nascent field, eLearning is yet to settle on broadly accepted language for people in education support roles and education designer / learning technologist / academic developer are all fairly interchangeable. As it turns out, an academic developer actually develops academics – which is to say, provides training and advice in teaching and learning to lecturers. There was little assumption in the literature that they have anything to do with making things, building course resources or taking a larger view of education technology. (Well, that’s an oversimplification)

In conjunction with a presentation from the always astute Professor Sue Bennett (University of Wollongong) at a local teaching and learning day on Monday, where she made a strong point that academics/teachers need to own education design rather than being “designed at” by education support types, I’ve realised that much of my focus over the last month or two has been from the education support perspective (with a lengthy detour into academic / professional divide territory) and shifting my frame to teachers makes a lot of sense.

In broad terms, I’m well aware that there are a great many factors at play in the success of TELT practices in Higher Ed – I’ve not even gone near the pedagogy, theory or material aspects yet – but I guess my personal experiences have led me to a point where the key seems to be the human elements. We can create the optimal environment with the most supportive conditions for success in the world, but if the people (university managers, academics, students and professionals) don’t engage or even actively resist (for a host of not always rational reasons), very little will be achieved. For me, it seems that understanding why people hold the attitudes that they do and what the best approaches are to work with these offers the greatest chance of successful change.

The question of change itself is an interesting one – it’s basically assumed that this is needed and desirable, presumably because we are in the middle of an incredible period of change (information revolution etc). The missing part of this discussion I suggest is looking at how we can support and disseminate (and strengthen I guess, which is a milder form of change) the practices that are successful already. Continuity and change, to borrow a cheeky political term. Everyone seems so fixated on on change that they forget that not everything is terrible. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for this in the literature as I go.

Thoughts on: ‘Sleeping with the enemy’: how far are you prepared to go to make a difference? A look at the divide between academic and allied staff (Wohlmuther, 2008)

At this stage of looking at the matter of professional staff and academic staff in Higher Education, I feel that I’m somewhat flogging a dead horse and everything that needs to be said, has been said. So why am I still looking at this paper? Initially I was concerned that it grated on me because it doesn’t fit with my current narrative that there are significant cultural factors in universities that make it unnecessarily difficult for professional staff – particularly those in education support roles – to be heard when it comes to discussing teaching and learning.

If this was the case, I’d clearly not being doing my best work as a scholar – open to new information and willing to reconsider my world view in the face of it. Having looked over the paper a few times now though, I have to say that I think it’s just not that great a piece of research. A number of assertions are made that simply aren’t supported by the evidence presented and some of the reasoning seems specious. Events from four years prior to the publication date are referred to in the future tense but there is no discussion of whether they happened or what the consequences were.

Assuming that this is poor research – or perhaps poor analysis – it makes me happy that I’ve reached a point where I can identify bad work but also a little concerned that I’m wrong or I’m missing something because this was still published in a peer reviewed journal that I’ve found a lot of good work in previously. (Then again, I assume that most journals have their own favoured perspectives and maybe this was well aligned with it). I searched in vain to find other writing by the author but she appears to be a ghost, with no publications or notable online presence since the paper came out.

In a nutshell, based on an anonymous online survey of 29% of all staff – academic and professional at her institution, which included questions about demographics, perceptions of the nature of their roles, the ‘divide’ and the value of different types of staff in relation to strategic priorities, the author concludes that there is minimal dissension between academic and “allied” staff and most of what little there is, is felt by the allied staff.

Now it’s entirely reasonable that this may well be the case but there are a few elements of the paper that seem to undermine the authors argument. Wohlmuther asks survey participants about their perceptions of a divide but doesn’t dig directly into attitudes towards other kinds of staff, which McInnis (1998), Dobson (2000) and Szekeres (2004) all identified as central factors. She looks at the perceptions of contributions of academic and allied staff members to the strategic goals of the organisation which obliquely explores their ‘value’ within the organisation but it seems limited. Given the ambiguous value of some higher level strategic goals (Winslett, 2016), this would seem to tell an incomplete story.

The greatest weakness of the paper to my mind is that ‘allied’ and ‘academic’ work roles are unclear.

Survey respondents were asked what percentage of their time they spent on allied work and what percentage of their time they should spend on allied work. The term ‘allied work’ was not defined. It was left to the respondent to interpret what they meant by allied work (p.330)

With no further examination of the responses via focus groups or interviews, this alone (to me anyway) seems to make the findings murky.

She found that only 29% of staff – all staff? that is unclear – felt that there was “good understanding and respect for the significance of each others roles and all staff work well together” (p.331) across the institute, however doesn’t take this to be an indicator of division.

Looking over the paper again, these are probably my main quibbles and perhaps they aren’t so dramatic. This tells me that I still have a way to go before I can truly ‘read’ a paper properly but I’m on the way

 

Research update #6

Not a stellar week – I did discover @legogradstudent on Twitter which is great

I also read another paper – yes I’m really trying to move on – about the professional /academic divide. This time about research into it in a particular institute in NZ. I’m not sure whether it is a bad paper or it’s just that I disagree with the findings but I’m almost sure that it is just bad. There’ll be more on this soon. I note that the author doesn’t appear to have written any other papers and that one was 8 years ago.

There have been a few big work things relating to the governance of TEL systems that I’ve been working in which I think will inform my research and I’m also cobbling together a gamified approach to academic staff PD that I think should be fun. I just really hope that people play. If I can get 4 teams of 2, I’ll consider it a win. More on this soon too – I’m calling it STELLAR – Scholarship of Technology Enhanced Learning, Leadership And Research, which is a tortured but valid acronym.

 

 

Thoughts on: The struggle to satisfy need: exploring the institutional cues for teaching support staff (Winslett, 2016)

While looking at three papers relating to professional staff in Higher Education recently I was conscious of two things. They were all written at least 12 years ago and they contained scant reference to people working in my domain of education support people (academic developers/education designers/learning technologists etc).

The papers were still valuable because I don’t believe that the academic/professional divide has gone anywhere and I think it does still impact on how universities are able to support TELT practices. All the same, I was keen to get a more contemporary take on things in this particular arena.

Greg Winslett  of the University of New England (Australia) lives in this space and has come at the issue from an interesting angle – exploring the ways in which top-level university strategic plans provide useful guidance to education support people in terms of setting priorities and practical directions.

Winslett favours the term Teaching Support Staff which I considered for a little while as a better option to Education Support People (or Professionals) but then I wondered whether it downplays the importance of learning. In fairness, he does refer to Teaching and Learning Support Staff at one point but mostly stuck with TSS. To be perfectly honest, all of this does feel like a minor semantic quibble to me, along the same lines as choosing between technology enhanced learning (TEL) or technology enhanced learning and teaching (TELT), but given that one of “our” issues is that academics don’t fully understand what ESPs (or TSS) have to offer, perhaps finding the right terminology can make a difference.

I’m still also torn between Education Support Professionals and Education Support People  – at least partially because the acronym ESP appeals to me – because this field is made up of both academics and professionals but “people” doesn’t seem weighty enough. I guess Teaching Support Staff avoids this question and we do spend virtually all of our time working with teachers on teaching matters. But philosophically we work in a learner-centred domain – or at least this is what we are told. Given that Winslett uses TSS in this paper, I’ll stick with that for now.

(Well that was something of a diversion)

Winslett does a number of things with the strategic plans gathered from the 39 universities in Australia. He runs them through data-mining software (Leximancer) to pull out key themes and concepts based around the clustering and frequency of key terms. These are then ranked to identify university priorities, both at a national level as well as in terms of university sub-groupings including the Group of Eight (Australia’s ‘Ivy League’), the Australian Technical Network, Regional Universities Network and Innovative Research Universities. This offers some interesting comparisons and insights into differences between the (self-selected) types of universities in this country.

He also draws on the work of Fraser (1989) in relation to “needs talk” (p.537) to discuss the concepts and themes identified and the cues they provide teaching support staff

Fraser proposes that examining ‘needs talk’ (statements that follow a conceptual structure of a needs b in order to c) makes visible the manner in which claims are made and contested and how different types of need are expressed. (p.537)

Given the high-level nature of most strategic plans and their importance in encompassing the vision of the organisation and their tendency to be more forward-looking;

most claims of need are framed as predictions for the future, rather than a more dramatic expression of an immediate need (p.542)

I think I expected less from them than Winslett in terms of practical guidance for people working on the ground. Something he finds noteworthy

and perhaps surprising is that the theme of ‘research’ does not appear in the top 10 ranking for the Group of Eight (p.539)

(in terms of themes in the strategic plans). If we accept that the plans are future focused and take an additional step to acknowledge that they will centre around improving areas of perceived weakness, maybe it’s not so surprising that Go8 unis, which pride themselves on research, take an ‘ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ attitude here.

The lists of themes and concepts that Winslett identifies and discusses are interesting but it is the next section that really stands out for me. Having identified the ‘claims of need’ across the strategic plans, the author explores the ones of specific relevance to TSS’ and identifies three areas where contradictory needs are often expressed that offer challenges in determining what the university executive actually wants.

“Teaching support staff need to innovate, but not too much” (p.543) 

Innovation has been a popular buzzword in government, industry and education for a good twenty years, if not longer. I’m not one to point fingers – I work in (or as) the Education Innovation Office. The first challenge that Winslett identifies is that everybody wants to be innovative but not everybody is willing to pay for it. The perceived benefits of innovation – increases in efficiency and (lower down the list) better teaching and learning –  are clearly highly desirable. These routinely collide with other needs to make more effective use of “existing resources, approaches and infrastructure” (p.544). This raises major questions:

How, for example, do teaching support staff know when to lobby for additional funding and resources? How innovative must a particular work activity be? (p.544)

“Teaching support staff need to help staff and help staff help themselves” (p.544) 

One of the practical costs of this innovation, particularly when it comes to using online tools and new pedagogies, is the extra work required to create resources and activities. And it isn’t just extra work, there are often new skillsets that are needed to create infographics, develop online quizzes, make videos and moderate discussion boards.

The strategic plans examined expressed the desire to equip academics with these skills as well as making use of the time-savings that Technology Enhanced Learning and Teaching apparently promises to offer more personalised teaching and learning experiences.

I run into this dilemma on a regular basis and it really boils down to a question of what is the purpose of a teaching academic? How productive a use of their time is it to expect them to master web development or media production when there are often skilled professionals on hand to do this for them? On the other hand, if these skilled professionals build something that is beyond the ability of the academic to fix or edit when they need to,  how long should they be stuck with a shoddy or faulty teaching resource that just frustrates them and the students.

In calling for the best of both worlds, the strategic plans perpetuate the problem without understanding it.

Teaching support staff need to adopt a learner-centred approach as long as the learner wants a job”

Another of the great points of debate routinely raised by academics is that Higher Education isn’t merely vocational training. (Ironically one of the new ‘big things’ in Higher Ed. is competency based education, with a stronger focus on better learning outcomes and constructive alignment of learning outcomes with course assessment, all of which has been features of the vocational sector for decades).

Winslett makes a point here that while there is much promotion of learner-centred approaches to teaching and learning – which includes “what is taught and how” (p.545) – in the strategic plans, there is also much discussion of designing courses that create employment ready graduates and which also meet the “requirements of the nation” (p.546). He appears to feel that these are all mutually exclusive and “may present a collision for teaching support staff working within some disciplines” (p.546)

I take the argument to be that a commitment to learner-centred design is quickly made secondary to other university priorities – including the actual capacity of the university to change enough to deliver this in a meaningful way and a perceived need to engage more effectively with industry and future student employers. I’d suggest that these two aims are not necessarily as contradictory as suggested and that a great many students attend university to be made more employable at a higher level. The ‘higher-order’ skills of analysis, research, critical thinking and communication – amongst others – that are seen to set universities apart from vocational training providers are in fact the ’employability skills’ that industry is calling for in graduates.

Winslett concludes in a fairly scathing manner that top-level university strategic plans more often hinder than help teaching support staff.

At best, these plans fail to distinctively shape the tone and direction of higher education pedagogy and delivery at a national level. At worst, the statements of need relating to teaching support confuse and mystify expectations of the role. This context presents considerable challenges to teaching support staff across the sector, making it difficult to muster support for initiatives, achieve consistency across the country and achieve quality benchmarks. Perhaps worst of all, the strategic plans do not generally provide specific guidance on the favoured forms of pedagogical design and development. That is to say, there is no substantive pedagogic strategy evident in any of the plans (p.546)

He does go on to concede that this level of detail is ideally more likely to be found in the lower-level operational plans that flow on from here. Given the diversity of disciplines and thus of appropriate teaching and learning approaches in these disciplines, I would personally struggle to advocate a detailed pedagogical strategy suitable for an entire university. (Which might be why I’m not in the executive – also that whole pesky not being an academic thing).

Winslett’s broad point is well made though and entirely relevant to all of us teaching support staff members who have scoured these kinds of documents in order to better understand the best – or at least most successful – ways to do our work in supporting teaching and learning.

 

 

 

Research update #5

This is just a quick one because I’m getting on a roll and am going to try to skim read 6 papers this weekend and properly read one that I’ve already started. I’ve been quite conscious of the fact that while I’m doing some good (it seems) deep reading, it’s taking a fair while and looking at the bibliographies even in journal papers makes me mindful of the fact that coming up with a useful (and read) list of 50+ papers requires a little getting the lead out.

Happily, I’ve found a contemporary paper (2016) by Greg Winslett of UNE that I’m hopeful will give me a recent take on the issues addressed in the three papers I looked at from the turn of the century. (There are also a host of recent citations that seem pretty pertinent)

Winslett’s paper – still from the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management (I’m worried about drawing too often from the same journal well) but what can you do – is about “The struggle to satisfy need: exploring the institutional cues for teaching support staff”

I like two things about this already – the term teaching support staff seems more suitable than the “education support staff” that I’ve been favouring, (although I am sad to lose the ESP acronym) – and the fact that this is about how TSSs can take guidance from university strategies. (We’re in the middle of a strategic revamp at present, so there’s much to think about)

I did also quite like the fact that a paper co-written by my supervisors Peter and Lina was cited. There was a funny moment of “oh, I know them”

I’m also mindful of the fact that I’m leaning very heavily on papers about and writers from the Australian Higher Education sector. I think I’m ok with this for now but will probably need to consider this in the way that I shape my research questions.

My cool uber-boss, our Associate Dean Education (hi Bronwen) mentioned that I’ve been tweeting a lot about the professional/academic staff divide lately. I felt compelled to clarify that I wasn’t trying to make any particular point or that I have any issue, it’s just where my research is sitting at the moment – and I guess I’m noticing more when other people are tweeting about it.

(I’m scheduled to move on to Unis as Organisations next Friday – I’m not 100% clear what I mean by this but I think it includes education ecosystems among other things). My way of thinking is also such that I’m most interested in the search for solutions than dwelling on any possible issues in terms of any divide or tensions between academics and professionals. The way I see things, we are where we are and that part can’t be changed but by trying to understand it, we can see which bits are working and which can be improved .

I suspect this isn’t going to be the last time that thinking critically about academia in an academic way raises eyebrows.

Thoughts on: Three papers about professional vs academic staff in Higher Education. (McInnis, 1998; Dobson, 2000; Szekeres, 2004)

Given that people are at the heart of implementing and supporting TELT practices in Higher Education, I’ve been investigating the kinds of people involved.

At the first level of the taxonomy, universities employ academic and professional staff. Whitchurch (2008) makes a solid case that, while these people generally work in their own domains, there are people who work across these boundaries in different ways – third space professionals. For the sake of simplicity however, and also because the three papers that I read focus almost entirely on ‘administrative’ professional staff, I’m just going to examine the key differences and some of the sources of tension between these two groups.

Following on from the paper I posted about recently by Jones et al (2012) on Distributed Leadership, I dove down the rabbit hole of citations and found these three papers:

Mcinnis, C. (1998). Academics and Professional Administrators in Australian Universities: dissolving boundaries and new tensions. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 20(2), 161–173. http://doi.org/10.1080/1360080980200204

Dobson, I. R. (2000). “Them and Us” – General and Non-General Staff in Higher Education. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 22(2), 203–210. http://doi.org/10.1080/713678142

Szekeres, J. (2004). The invisible workers. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 26(1), 7–22. http://doi.org/10.1080/1360080042000182500

The first thing I noticed after reading all three papers was the small ways in which the writers’ personalities, assumptions and perspectives creep through. In some ways, they reflect the larger issues at hand, occupying a spectrum from begrudging acceptance of the need to take professional staff more seriously within set parameters to good-natured concern at the disregard of them to simmering disquiet at the routine slights experienced (mixed in with a distaste for the Neoliberalism that has been a part of many recent changes in Higher Ed. and exacerbated these divisions)

Collectively they all seem to arrive at more or less the same destination – that greater understanding is needed about the roles and values of professional staff and academics and that more needs to be done to foster better collaboration. The differences in how they get there and what they believe is needed to help this to happen (and why) are illustrative of the issues themselves.

McInnis and Dobson were (and are) academics and Szekeres was a professional administrative staff member – also working on her doctorate at the time. Their respective positions in their universities offer additional insights into different attitudes in different departments – McInnis working as an Associate Professor in a school and Dobson holding a role tied to the executive.

The three papers were written in a reasonably narrow window of time – 1998 to 2004 – when Australian universities were still coming to terms with major shifts to the sector introduced by John Dawkins (Federal minister responsible for Higher Education) in the mid to late ’80s. These heralded a more market driven and corporate managerialist mindset in public institutions. (More on this shortly)

The language used in all of these papers is interesting in itself, the now commonly used “professional staff” terminology is nowhere to be seen, the terms of the day were administrative staff, general staff or non-academic staff. Being academia, these terms were also picked apart for their own implied meanings and values – with “non-academic” given special attention for seeking to define people by what they aren’t.

Dobson particularly is very mindful of this, titling his paper “Them and Us – General and Non-General staff in Higher Education”, turning the tables on the usual academic / non-academic binary. He comments that

“the tendency to describe general staff in this negative way is a strange trait in the current climate of inclusiveness promoted fairly generally by universities, but in particular by universities’ acceptance of equity and affirmative action principles” (p.203)

Dobson and Szekeres’ papers are largely based around a review of the current literature (including government and university reports, letters to H.E. publications and novels) as well as informal notes from conversations with colleagues overseas. McInnis takes a different approach, comparing the results of two surveys of attitudes conducted of academics and administrative staff (at a management level).

All agree that there are a number of differences and tensions between academic and professional staff and recognise that professional staff are massively underrepresented in discussions and publications relating to Higher Education.

(I’m curious to see whether this is still the case – I imagine it is, based on my own experiences – and have flagged it for further research). At this point I need to mention that I was initially looking more for writing about Education Support Professionals and the nature of their relationships with academics but there is scant reference to this role in any of these papers. McInnis mentions that

“Professional administrators are reshaping academic work by virtue of their increasingly pivotal roles in such areas as course management and delivery” (p.168)

but the emphasis here is much more on people working in non-teaching areas of the university, or as Szekeres more comprehensively puts it

“their focus is about either supporting the work of academic staff, dealing with students on non-academic matters or working in an administrative function such as finance, human resources, marketing, public relations, business development, student administration, academic administration, library, information technology, capital or property” (p.8)

Even though in these papers we are looking at people working in “non-academic” areas, I think there is still much to be learned from exploring the broader relationships between academics and professionals as it is often people working in professional roles that are charged with supporting and initiating TELT practices in Higher Ed. Putting aside the boundary crossing tendencies of this relationship and the complications that arise from stepping onto teaching and learning ‘turf’, there are many other moving parts to be considered and these three papers offer valuable insights into other facets of this relationship, particularly university culture.

The virtual absence of professional staff in the literature discussing people working in Higher Education is recognised by all three authors here. Szekere’s paper title – “The Invisible Workers” – is a pointed reminder of this and even in the defining documents of the time (Dawkins’ Green and White papers) Dobson notes that

“general staff were scarcely considered during the writing of the Green Paper. In fact there are only three paragraphs devoted to the subject” (p.204)

This lack of presence in literature (of all kinds) discussing Higher Ed illustrates one of the interesting contradictions of the relationship between professionals and academics – the work and expertise of professionals is misunderstood and considered trivial but they also represent a threat to the status quo (of academic values) in terms of the change that they represent and they are felt (by academics) to hold too much power. Maybe the hope is that by not talking about them, they will just go away or maybe academics simply have a blind spot to people not in their ‘tribe’. (Neither of those are points raised by any of the authors)

Szekeres raises another factor in discussing invisibility, that of gender, pointing out that

“while women make up the majority of general staff, they are disproportionately in the lower-level positions” (p.8)

Again, I’d hope that more recent research will show that this has changed but I won’t be surprised if it hasn’t. Dobson discusses a study carried out by UWA on “The Position of Women General Staff at the University of Western Australia” that aimed to

“identify any cultural or structural impediments within the University which might work against the aspirations of women and propose strategies to address these. (UWA, Executive Summary, P.1)” (p.206)

It found that

“the issue of gender was less of a barrier to their aspirations than the fact that they were members of the general staff” (p.206)

This is not at all to say that there aren’t issues faced specifically by professional women in Higher Ed, simply that the professional/academic divide is a significant one.

At the heart of the divide lies the aforementioned culture of corporate managerialism. This ties in to new practices, changes to decision making structures and moves toward greater accountability and efficiency that can come into conflict with the established ‘academic values’, university culture and autonomy that make Higher Education a distinct sector.

Szekeres describes the rise of this culture of corporate managerialism particularly well:

‘As pressure increases on governments to account for the expenditure of public funds, they respond either by privatising government institutions or by increasing the reporting requirements of those few public institutions left…

In many texts, this increase of surveillance and privatisation is characterised as a neoliberal agenda. It exhibits itself through public institutions remodeling themselves along commercial lines and falls into a general discourse, corporate managerialism. This discourse has a number of elements including: an increase in managerial control (managerialism); competing with each other in the marketplace (marketization); being under greater scrutiny while having greater devolved responsibility (audit); and generally modelling their structures and operations on corporate organisations (corporatisation)” (p.9)

This kind of change can’t occur without at least perceived winners and losers. McInnis’ discussion of the two attitude surveys of academics and administrative staff, taken relatively early in the process of these changes, gives us an indication of some of the points of contention.

56% of admins felt that academics are not sufficiently accountable for their worktime (p.167)

“A mere 12% of academics thought their research productivity had increased as a result of formal appraisal processes, and 57% clearly thought not” (p.167)

“41% of administrators believing that quality assurance mechanisms would ensure genuine improvement to the higher education system as against 19% of academics” (p.167)

67% of academics (vs 52% of admins) felt that “universities are of little value to society if they are not autonomous” (p.166)

Much of McInnis’ paper revolves around the impact these changes have on the “core values” (p.170) of the academy, going so far as to conclude that

“Efficiency and effectiveness, productivity and performance, accountability and supervision are typically the preoccupation of administrators. It may be argued that the growth in specialist support staff and administrators such as experts in marketing, counselling and strategic planning has amounted to a subtle process of ‘colonisation’ of higher education. The experts are assumed to bring with them market and individualistic values with no particular allegiance to the higher-order goals of the academic world” (p.171)

I find it interesting that these core values and higher-order goals are never explicitly stated – presumably as an academic you just ‘get’ them but autonomy seems to sit firmly at the core.

(This shouldn’t be taken to suggest that I believe that Higher Education and research should be treated as businesses in place of of noncommercial exploration, investigation and creativity, it’s more that the underlying assumptions that “non-academics” exist only in a soulless world of spreadsheets seems narrow minded and perhaps a little arrogant.)

McInnis makes his most explicit statement of this in his conclusion:

“where once administrative staff were considered powerless functionaries, they now increasingly assume high-profile technical and specialist roles that impinge directly on academic autonomy and control of the core activities of teaching and research” (p.170)

Looking at power reveals another significant source of tension in the academic/professional staff binary – rightly or wrongly. It’s hardly a new thing however.

Szekeres observes that

“Lee and Bowen (1971) found that academics tended to confound the lives of administrators but at the same time they vastly over-estimated the power that administrators had” (p.19)

A key point that often seems to be missed is that while professional / administrative staff are often responsible for implementing changes seen as less desirable by academics, these have almost always come from the university executive – Deans, Vice Chancellors and the like – who are invariably academics. Dobson notes that

“too few staff (particularly academic staff) understand or appreciate the reality of university authority structures. The ills which have befallen universities in recent times have frequently been seen by the academic staff as the fault of ‘the administration’. The difference between ‘administration’ and ‘governance’ seems to be lost on many members of the academic staff. That there is an ‘attitude problem’ toward the role of general staff among some in the academic ranks in exemplified by the following quote from Cullen (1988):

“There is a great deal of talent in the academic staff of higher education institutions. How they manage the systems which surround them and still find time to make a contribution to academic programs is a minor miracle… there is an old adage that administration is too important to be left to the administrators. It seems to me that this is certainly true of the sorts of reforms [in the Green and White Papers] we now need to discuss (p.154)” “ (p.208 of Dobson)

Academics can be even more scathing of former academics in the university executive levels than of professional / administrative staff. Szekeres found a quote in a Academia Nuts, a satirical novel about university life by Michael Wilding describing them thusly:

“they are not even trained administrators, they are not even professional managers. They are the Judases of the profession (2002, p.202)” (p.14)

So perhaps it is as much a matter of expressing frustration at anybody who gets in the way and being unable to sort the ‘functionaries’ from the ‘Judases’.

In practical terms however, the perception of a shift in power to professional staff may be over estimated. Three quotes from the comments sections of the survey of administrative staff reviewed by McInnis are revealing.

“in order for an opinion to be accepted it seems it must be sanctioned by an academic – this is very frustrating for general staff who are experts in their field” (p.168)

“the current concept of ‘general’ or ‘administrative’ staff inherently denies that we have specialist skills or subject expertise” (p.168)

“there is little recognition that there are highly qualified and experienced professionals in areas of support expertise which the University now needs and that they may well be better able to manage these tasks better than an academic; the assumption that an academic specialisation in a field makes a practising expert e.g. in marketing; or that computing support needs ultimately to be managed by an academic (Director of unit)” (p.168-9)

On the Professional staff side, by far the most significant issue reported (repeatedly) was the lack of respect or appreciation for their work from academic staff. According to McInnis

“only 28% of administrators agreed that ‘the relationship between academic and general staff is generally very positive’ and 36% expressed dissatisfaction with the appreciation their roles by academic staff” (p.167)

The under-representation of professional staff in publications about Higher Education, could be seen as another symptom of this and even the authors of these papers that appear more sympathetic to their plight sometimes pay more ‘backhanded compliments’

“It is probably fair to say that most general staff both ‘know their place’ and realise that their role is not the ‘main game’, but perhaps some academic staff haven’t caught up with the fact that a professional general staff does much to support and to enhance the student experience at university” (Dobson, p.209)

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the three authors generally all come to the same conclusions, recognising that there is no option to put the genie of recent Higher Education reform back in the bottle and that more understanding and effective collaboration is needed between academic and professional staff.

With Szekeres’ attention being primarily on the representation of professional staff in current literature relating to Higher Education, she feels that much more effort needs to be put into telling and understanding “the stories of administrative staff” (p. 20).

She is fairly scathing of current representations

“much of the writing about universities which has emanated from the academic community has displayed erroneous perceptions. Many of these writers have been dismissive of administrative staff and their roles in the institution or have ignored them altogether. When provided at all, many of the constructions of academic staff demonstrate false impressions of what administrators actually do, the nature of their work and their relationship to the organisation” (p.20)

McInnis, on the other hand, makes it clear in his conclusion that he believes that this needs to done with an emphasis on the traditional values of academia

“the extent to which administrative staff support core values is crucial to the preservation of university autonomy” (p.170)

and

“the key question is how to support and sustain the transformation of universities while acknowledging and accommodating the basic sentiments and work practices of academics considered central to the idea of the university as a community of learners” (p.171)

Dobson ends with an appeal for understanding from academic staff that unfortunately somewhat downplays professional staff concerns about being being disrespected and unappreciated but which broadly calls for unity

“Should general staff be worried by the attitudes of some academic staff members? Probably not, because they will have found that there are also many rude people among the senior general staff. However, this does not change the fact that there is a need for a greater understanding by academic staff that the changes in higher education have been difficult for general staff too” (p. 210)

 

 

Many of these issues I’d have to put into the university-culture basket (the “too-hard basket”?) because there are a lot of long established and entrenched attitudes and expectations that are unlikely to change quickly. Speaking openly about them, sharing stories and viewpoints and increasing understanding at least seems like a useful first step.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Research update

Things are definitely feeling better in researchland – this weekend I’ve read 3 papers and 2 blog posts, have blogged about the post and have another post brewing that will capture key ideas from the three papers.

I think my choice of papers has helped me here, I’ve been looking at the divide between professional and academic staff in higher education and this has been a comparatively theory-lite experience, with far less epistemology and pedagogy to unpack than normal.

The papers are all at least a decade (and one is closer to two) old and have left me asking regularly – ok well that’s pretty interesting but where are we now? Have your promised or hoped for changes eventuated or has the academe stubbornly dug in?

Perhaps it was the papers that I chose/found but the role of Education Support People/Professionals is barely even acknowledged and this certainly gives me thing to move on with. Developing a broader understanding of attitudes and the impact of external changes (largely governmental in these papers in terms of higher expectations for accountability and professionalism) has definitely given me a greater feel for the environment and issues.

I have noted that all three papers came from the same journal, the Higher Education Policy and Management, which seems like a logical place for discussions of the operational side of universities and I’ll be interested to see whether the question of the role and value of professional staff is considered in journals relating to other aspects of Higher Ed.

I have a meeting booked with my supervisor on Thursday and I’m feeling like I might even have something of substance to discuss, seemingly for the first time in a while. This isn’t to say that the other meetings weren’t productive but I feel much more like I’ve been doing proper scholarship this time around.